Photo by NASA

Photo by NASA

Left to burn for weeks, the massive forest fire sparked June 12 that led to the evacuation Eastmain caused widespread electricity blackouts, closed the James Bay Highway, disrupted food shipments and spread dangerously thick smog over Quebec and the Maritimes.

The question is why. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois was criticized for not sending in the water bombers, but it turns out it was not her decision.

It was Stephen Harper’s.

According to Jacques Viger, the Quebec public security ministry’s regional director, fires north of the 51st parallel are left to burn unless the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development makes the call.

That call didn’t come until June 29. That’s when crews from Quebec and jurisdictions as far away as BC swung into action.

It was almost too late for the community of Eastmain, where flames came within four kilometres before fire-suppression efforts saved the community. More than 250 residents were moved to safety in Val d’Or.

No one from the federal Aboriginal Affairs department returned the Nation’s requests for comment. According to department’s website, the feds will help First Nations communities with their emergency plans in the event of a forest fire, including funding forest-fire suppression efforts.

Eastmain Chief Edward Gilpin still wonders why the Aboriginal Affairs didn’t call in firefighters when the fire began, when it would have been so much easier – and cheaper – to extinguish.

“There is this red tape that can only get cleared up by an emergency,” said Gilpin. “This emergency has to deal with human lives in the community. There is always the confusion over who is responsible. The responsibility for this is still very much in the air and it has never been settled as to who should handle this.”

Despite the danger, the health risks of intense smog and the economic costs posed by electricity blackouts and disrupted mining operations, Viger said fires north of the 51st parallel are usually left to burn because the forests there are not considered commercially profitable.

“We let them burn because it would be a waste of time, energy and financial resources to put them out,” said Viger. “Above the 51st parallel, if there is no forestry, mining or other activities in that area then we protect just the people in the area and then say goodbye to the rest.”

As of July 10 the fired had razed 650,000 hectares. Trappers and hunters in the region say it will be a generation before animal populations recover.

More to come in the next issue of the Nation.